The natives are revolting. Across England, particularly in the gilt-edged Cotswolds in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, locals are rising up against the rich and their expensive, loud toys—from car museums to airstrips, from racetracks to showy country clubs. Sleepy pockets of sheep-farming country—unchanged for centuries—have been rudely disturbed by the roar of combustion engines and the earsplitting guffaws of well-heeled D.F.L.’s—Down From London types.
The Cotswolds have become England’s Hamptons, a ritzy enclave within easy reach of London, where you need never socialize with a low-net-worth individual. And just like the spats over beach rights and helicopter noise on Georgica Pond, there’s a feeling that the rich are carving out gated enclaves for themselves.
Soho House: The Green Acres Version
One of the hot spots is in Oxfordshire, around the Great Tew estate of Nick Johnston, an Old Etonian friend of former prime minister David Cameron’s. Last year, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took out a two-year lease on a converted cowshed on the 3,500-acre estate. Also on the Great Tew estate is Soho Farmhouse, a rural outpost of club members of the Soho House. Locals have taken against the huge increase in traffic around the back roads as Londoners are ferried to the Farmhouse from the capital. They have mocked the Farmhouse, too, for its manicured approach to country life—with its neat lawns and paths linking a series of bars, restaurants, and lakeside cottages as well as a gym and a spa.
Last year, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took out a two-year lease on a converted cowshed on the 3,500-acre estate.
David and Victoria Beckham recently bought a $7.5 million triple-barn conversion on the estate, which was promptly targeted by burglars.
Now American insurance billionaire Peter Mullin, 78, who created the Mullin Automotive Museum, in Oxnard, California, has won a long, acrimonious campaign to build a huge development in the airfield on the estate. The development will include a racetrack, a car museum featuring pre–W.W. II Bugattis, 28 holiday lodges, and a Bentley entertainment pavilion.
Last year, the $180 million plan attracted more than 260 objections from locals who dreaded the increase in noise and traffic. One local, Star Trek actor Sir Patrick Stewart, wrote in his official objection: “There is too much of a commercial and elitist aspect to all this. Fabulously expensive historic cars, Bentley cars showroom and houses costing £5-£6 million. This is a greenfield site and there is no mention of affordable housing. This area is of notable beauty, tranquility and is accessible to all, resident and non-residents alike.”
One local, Star Trek actor Sir Patrick Stewart, called the scheme “elitist.”
Another local, former Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson, backed the plans to the hilt. Clarkson is a leading member of the “Chipping Norton set,” powerful figures who live near the Oxfordshire town of Chipping Norton. Other members include David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenant Rebekah Brooks, and P.R. shaman Matthew Freud. This summer, councillors on West Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee allowed the development to go ahead. Like the other fights over the glitz-ification of rural England, there is a strong feeling of us and them: the local, well-off us and the super-rich them.
It was hard not to agree when I visited Soho Farmhouse. It was like entering a Truman Show version of rural England. At the entrance lodge, you’re greeted by stiff security as you present your credentials. Wasp-waisted club members ride up and down the immaculate tarmac on old-fashioned, sit-up-and-beg bicycles. There isn’t a speck of dirt—or a whiff of silage—as I move from the vast cheese fridge to the screening room. The hip bar is filled with young women in fashionable outfits who look like they’ve been airlifted in 60 miles from Notting Hill. There isn’t a single local accent to be heard.
In theory, you have to have an artistic-media connection to be a member—a banker friend of mine was incensed at having his application rejected. But the main criteria for membership, going on my visit, were wealth, a measure of coolness, and a smaller-than-average waistline. One local friend of mine, who declined to join the club, refers to the clientele at the bar as “c**t soup.” Once you’re inside the converted farm buildings, you could be anywhere in the hyper-rich world, from London to Paris to New York. And wherever the hyper-rich go, they take their hyper-rich playthings with them, including their planes.
There isn’t a speck of dirt—or a whiff of silage—as I move from the vast cheese fridge to the screening room.
Thus another rural row over Sir James Dyson, the billionaire bagless-vacuum-cleaner tycoon, who wants to upgrade Hullavington Airfield, in Wiltshire. Dyson bought the airfield in 2017 and now plans to extend the runway, build a new hangar, and add new fencing and lighting. He has already converted several World War II hangars into engineering spaces for his company. Under the plan, 60 jet flights and 300 helicopters will land at the airport every year.
Local hostility to the plans has been exacerbated by Dyson’s recent announcement that he’s exporting the head office of his business to Singapore, buying a $54 million flat there. It doesn’t help that Dyson is a keen Brexiteer. That he should back Brexit while exporting his headquarters only adds to the impression that he is a mega-rich absentee landlord, disturbing rural Wiltshire while he lives the expat life of Riley.
Like Peter Mullin in Oxfordshire, Dyson makes the economic argument for development: “The 517-acre Hullavington Campus is an investment for our future, creating a global hub for our research and development endeavors. It will enable us to continue creating world-class products and jobs right here in the Cotswolds.”
Plenty of locals do not agree, including Kate Tanner, of nearby Stanton St. Quintin, who wrote to Wiltshire Council, saying, “Regular jet and helicopter flights over the village would totally change this lovely part of Wiltshire.”
It isn’t just billionaires who are disturbing the ancient slumber of country life. In June, members of St. John’s Cycling Club in Worcester were targeted by a BMW driver who hurled thumbtacks in their path. Three of them sustained multiple punctures. Similar tack attacks have happened in Scotland and Surrey bicycling events.
The blood pressure is rising in the unlikeliest of rural spots. This summer, Jeremy Brown, a 62-year-old former university lecturer, stormed into the church in Noss Mayo, Devon, to try to stop the noise of the annual bell-ringing competition that has gone on for more than 50 years.
Members of St. John’s Cycling Club in Worcester were targeted by a BMW driver who hurled thumbtacks in their path.
You can blame this on a nationwide anger epidemic—which has exploded in a peculiarly nasty way in a knife-crime spree in London. You can blame it, too, on Brexit and the feverish air of indecision that has hung over the country since the 2016 European referendum.
In the countryside, though, something specific has happened—particularly in those super-rich pastures west of London. It’s an area that has been richer than the east for centuries—not least because prevailing southwesterly winds have sent smoke and soot to the east; and London’s industrial Docklands are in the east, closer to the Thames estuary.
Town and Ball Gown
For more than 200 years, ever since the Industrial Revolution, the British have migrated from country to town. Now, as rich townies reverse the trend and become country squires, there are bound to be clashes—particularly when the townies expect the natives to fit in with their ways, rather than the other way around. The rich once took up country pursuits—shooting and fishing—when they moved out of town. Now they bring their must-have urban accessories—the home screening room, the $2,500 bike, the Damien Hirst print—with them.
In those rich hot spots of Wiltshire and the Cotswolds, the country has been utterly transformed. Gone is the Cold Comfort Farm look—gates closed with orange baling twine; slurry-caked farmyards, laced with ripped plastic bags. The country has been neatened and gentrified. Range Rovers take the place of tractors; gastro pubs run by public-schoolboys supplant the cheap and cheerful drinking pubs of Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. The poor, the old, and the sick are barely visible, banished to new developments and council estates on the edge of town away from the picturesque, medieval heart of the English village. As the huge fortunes made in London rain down on the country and transform it forever, you can forgive the locals for fighting one last angry rearguard action against the gilded new order.
Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English